On February 16th, 2009, the UK began to enforce their ambiguously-worded counter-terrorism laws that, essentially, call into question the motives of all photographers and cast doubt upon their actions. Photographing any police officer, military personnel or intelligence official is an ‘offense’ for which a photographer can now be arrested. The vagueness of the law is nearly as disturbing as the fact it even exists, because it empowers any police officer to detain a photographer and confiscate both equipment and images under the flimsiest veil of legitimacy.

As I mourned the vilification of my UK brethren, I took solace in the fact that I lived in Canada — a nation fiercely committed to rights, freedoms, and artistic expression… or so I thought.

On March 20th, Vancouver police shot and killed a man they erroneously identified as a suspect in a recent vehicular break-in. It was an event with nearly 50 witnesses, one of whom captured the shooting using his cell phone. Police confiscated the man’s phone and deleted the four minute video of the shooting. Then, on April 5th, Vancouver police shot a suspected car thief. A news photographer, who happened to live nearby, ran out of his home to photograph the aftermath. Police demanded he turn over his camera. When the photographer refused, they tried to wrestle it away from him — manhandling him, and putting him in a lock-hold in an effort to forcibly confiscate his camera. Eventually, under threat of arrest, the photographer surrendered it to police.

In spite of police spokespeople who confirm the department supports Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association reports at least four such recent incidents. Fortunately, local public opinion weighs heavily in favor of photographers, and the actions of a few rogue police officers has not vilified the camera toting members of this community.

Such vilification, apparently, is the duty of Translink — metro Vancouver’s regional transport authority. They recently unveiled a new print campaign featuring an ad in which a man is shown photographing a security camera. The ad encourages people to report this kind of activity to the police. I’ll overlook the obvious irony that Translink, themselves, took a photo of a security camera for their own advertisement, thus self-demonizing the campaign. But what I can’t overlook is TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie’s rationalization for why photographers should be reported. According to Mr. Hardie, “they’re taking pictures of wiring, pipes, electrical panels. Well, I’m sorry, not many people go around doing that.”

You are correct, Mr. Hardie. Not many people go around doing that. Just photographers, designers, artists, architects and people who find beauty and interest in man-made creations. “Normal” people who turn their cameras around backward, holding them at arm’s length so as to take self-portraits in front of tourist sites, are usually not the sort to photograph architectural details. Nor are terrorists, as Bruce Schneier wrote so eloquently in an article for the UK’s “Guardian” newspaper, last year.

I take photos of pipes, wires, panels, and all manner of things that Translink would have us believe are illicit offenses. Last week, the following object attracted my attention:

The way the pipe snaked across the wall, dividing it into dark and light halves, reminded me of the Yin-Yang symbol. There’s even a circular element that conforms to the smaller circles within the Yin-Yang graphic. The fact I even noticed this would probably befuddle Translink, but the reason I photographed it is even more sinister: As a capitalist, I thought it might make a nice CD cover for some band. I even worked on a little ‘mock up.’ So feel free to contact me if you’d like to purchase it.

Now, honestly, I have no problem with citizens being aware of their surroundings and doing due diligence. I’ve been approached several times while photographing some rather peculiar objects. It matters not to me whether these people are suspicious or merely curious — I’ll treat them with respect and gladly tell them what I’m photographing and why. What concerns me is the way in which this Translink ad casts photographers as likely criminals and encourages others to view us in this way.

I recently stood in the middle of a parking lot, in front of a large white wall, and took a photo of a small section in which a brick was missing. It’s the sort of thing few people ever notice, much less photograph. But I caught site of a small syringe within the crevice, so I photographed it. Upon returning home, I could see, in the murky shadows, another syringe and what appears to be a knife handle. It’s a rather eerie photograph. But am I the criminal for having taken it?

So if you ever see me photographing electrical wiring, some pipes, or a blank wall and you’re worried or curious, just ask me about it. I’d be happy to tell you, for example, that I took the following photograph because I thought it would make a nice background on which some company could ‘paint’ an advertisement or slogan.

In fact, now that I think about it, that’s exactly what I’ll use it for:

©2009 grEGORy simpson
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